South Korean tourists board a shuttle bus after landing at Phu Quoc international airport on November 20, 2021, as the island welcomes its first international tourists to arrive after a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine passport scheme kicked off this month in Vietnam. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen / AFP)

Tourism in ASEAN: The Need to Turn Dreams Into Reality

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ASEAN has grand plans to boost its tourism sector, which has been afflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite its strenuous efforts, however, tourism in the region is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2022.

The spotlight is once again on Cambodia, the new ASEAN Chair which received considerable attention over its handling of the Myanmar crisis earlier in the month. This time, however, the spotlight is on Cambodia’s attempts to boost the region’s tourism sector, which has been plagued by the Covid-19 pandemic.

 On 19 January, Cambodia organised the 25th Meeting of ASEAN Tourism Ministers at the seaside tourist town of Sihanoukville in Cambodia. Chaired by Cambodia’s Tourism Minister Thong Khon, the grouping’s ministers agreed to announce the reopening of ASEAN tourism to revitalise the sector amid the Covid-19 pandemic. ASEAN tourism ministers were not only optimistic about the reopening but believed that the tourism sector would bounce back with greater resilience and sustainability. 

The highest-level meeting on tourism cooperation in ASEAN (held in both physical and virtual formats) took place in conjunction with the 40th ASEAN Tourism Forum 2022 (ATF 2022). The forum’s theme — ‘ASEAN – A Community of Peace and Shared Future’ — underscore efforts to boost a resilient and sustainable tourism recovery. Over 40 companies and 20 media institutions from over 27 countries were reported to have attended ATF 2022, which aims to promote ASEAN as a single tourism destination with diverse cultures, cuisine, and communities. 

Cambodia has taken the lead in ASEAN this time by being the first to reopen its country to all vaccinated international travellers, including organising ATF 2022 in a physical format, albeit with safety measures. 

In the past two years, ASEAN countries have primarily focused their efforts on domestic regulations and control measures. This was done in a siloed manner and resulted in a disparate patchwork of Covid-19 responses. ASEAN has now agreed to step up cooperation and coordinate more closely to ensure the gradual and steady reopening of the region, for fear of being left behind in the global competition for the tourism dollar. 

A series of proposals include a standardised Covid-19 vaccination recognition system within ASEAN as the roll-out of vaccination continues. Other initiatives include an ASEAN safe tourism travel stamp to assure travellers in ASEAN of hygiene and safety standards, greater digitalisation of ASEAN tourism, strengthening data and information networks, as well as promoting connectivity and travel facilitation to and within ASEAN. 

These are certainly worthy aspirations. However, realistically speaking, tourism is unlikely to return to business as usual in 2022. Low inoculation rates in countries like the Philippines and Myanmar and strict travel restrictions in countries like Brunei, Laos, Indonesia and Vietnam will continue to hinder the revival of tourism. Furthermore, Chinese tourists, which account for a third of all visitors, are not about to return soon due to its outbound travel restrictions. Those who are yearning to travel will face an elaborate mesh of obstacles: testing, restrictions on hotels, changing regulations, lack of direct flights and other social restrictions. This will continue to dampen travel. 

Prior to the pandemic, the tourism sector accounted for 14.3 per cent of ASEAN’s combined GDP while providing more than 13 per cent of employment in the region. According to Minister Thong Khon, ASEAN’s tourism growth rate was growing about six per cent in 2019 and the industry provided around 30 million jobs. The number of international tourists fell by more than 80 per cent and tourism revenue fell by over 75 per cent during the pandemic. 

Leaders in ASEAN have been urging members to operationalise the travel corridor arrangement – a framework to facilitate essential and official travels among ASEAN Member States – following its adoption in August last year to help reopen borders and revive regional economies.

Despite the measures that ASEAN has put into play, it has a hill to climb. At ATF 2022, the ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA) added that in 2021, Southeast Asia was acknowledged as the region with ‘the most travel restrictions in the world by the World Tourism Organisation’. ASEANTA is supporting and fast-tracking tourism recovery through digital platforms, business-to-business exhibitions, and a business-to-consumers marketplace. It is also calling on ASEAN to expand the ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework (ATCAF), which was endorsed by ASEAN Leaders to include leisure travel as well. 

Leaders in ASEAN have been urging members to operationalise the travel corridor arrangement – a framework to facilitate essential and official travel among ASEAN Member States – following its adoption in August last year to help reopen borders and revive regional economies. However, the framework is restricted to only citizens, permanent residents, and long-term pass holders of ASEAN countries. 

Although the framework has yet to be materialised due to limited reciprocal openings between ASEAN countries, ASEAN Tourism Ministers are hoping that the travel corridor arrangement will serve as a foundation for expansion beyond essential travel to include leisure travel. This will help position ASEAN as a single tourism destination by 2025 and ensure that it remains competitive in this sector, particularly post-pandemic. 

The Omicron variant seems to have thrown a spanner in the works, with several ASEAN countries tightening its borders once again. But Manu Bhaskaran in an article in The Edge Malaysia noted that the current difficult patch in the global economy is likely to be short-lived. This should give way to a period of robust expansion, and the patterns within this recovery ‘should benefit Southeast Asia.’

This sentiment seems to be shared by others in the region. Hot on the heels of Cambodia, Indonesia will host the next ASEAN Tourism Forum in 2023. The forum is expected to take place in Yogyakarta, and Indonesia will take over the chairmanship of ASEAN Tourism in 2022-2023. With the upcoming theme ‘Empower Talents, Embrace Technology, Recover Tourism’, Indonesia’s Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno has announced that Indonesia will foster the ‘resurgence of the tourism sector’ to spur ASEAN’s economy.

At a time when ASEAN’s spirit of ‘togetherness’ is challenged, tourism cooperation may offer a fresh impetus in a weary region. The launch of ASEAN’s new Visit Southeast Asia tourism brand and tagline ‘A Destination for Every Dream’ will help to position ASEAN to recapture its lost dreams and to bring greater hope and resiliency to its people. The question here is whether ASEAN would be able to turn its plans to boost tourism into reality.

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